Mishwar to Manchester

“Mishwar” is an Arabic word that literally translates to “trip” or “journey”. It has other uses, and is used to translate to “there is no molecule in me that has the energy to go through the hassle of [doing something]” (e.g. Coursework? Mishwar). In this case, it has its literal meaning. And a bit of the other.

I arrived in Manchester at 7:28pm on Friday night after the bumpy ride from London Euston. The trains are just ridiculously fast, and (I don’t know if it’s just me, but) they actually tilt sideways when taking a turn, like a rollercoaster. I got off the train, ran to the queue for a cab and rode to the hotel. The weather is so cold that, even inside the hotel room, I can’t feel my fingers. I know it’s because I’m nervous, it’s my first hackathon after all. I slept and waited for the next morning to surprise me. And oh boy it did.

At around 6am, I woke up without my alarm going off. I know it’s because my blood is fizzing with excitement. I took a shower, got dressed, dressed my best and left the hotel. It felt like I was walking to a merge of an exam and a wedding, where everyone would stare at me and expect me to do my best, where I would be judged on my performance and appearance. When I finally found the venue after around a half hour walk of being lost, I saw a beautiful glass building and thought: “I wish the hackathon was in there”. I thought the building was so pretty that I decided I’ll walk into there, because it had the Manchester Metropolitan University logo on it, and I knew that the university was hosting StudentHack. I just needed to find out in which of it’s many buildings it was going to be.

Being as lost as I was, I found the side entrance walked into the building looking for someone to ask where StudentHack was held, when I saw the StudentHack banner. Behind that, I saw a massive vertical hall dominated by spacious round tables. I was somewhat early, but there was already around sixty or so students spread among the tables like children among toys on a playground. I sensed the thrill in everyone’s low voices, but didn’t have the courage to introduce myself. I was still waiting for Mustafa, a close friend who agreed to come to StudentHack with me. I silently walked up to a round table that had no one on it, and sat on my own for about two minutes, just taking note of my surroundings. The hall spread out with lecture halls and study rooms on either side, a glass wall at the end of it, and a glass ceiling above it. The sunlight coming in through the multitude of glass panels was making the place look brighter and brighter.

The bright hall in which most of the attendees ‘hacked’

I’m usually only initially shy, so I just sat there staring at the tables that had about five or six persons each, all having conversations, while I’m sitting on my own. Then, someone who I found out later is the founder of StartupWeekend Southampton, walked up to the table next to mine, introduced himself and asked everyone about their skills and what they were doing (I later noticed he was doing this with every table). That was my cue: There’s nothing I love more than a friendly atmosphere. So I got up and walked to their table, had a seat and had a long chat with all of them. It was an awesome start, and it was about to get better.

Less than an hour later, we stood in the check-in line, grabbed our wristbands (which, at the moment, I have two of on my bagpack), t-shirts and courage. We walked towards the room where the introduction talk was being held, took our seats and waited.

The check-in line where we got our wristbands and t-shirts.

When Bilawal Hameed, the founder of StudentHack, came up and spoke with enthusiasm about StudentHack’s history and what they intend to do. But what really caught my attention, was #concierge.

StudentHack had an idea and it was called the #concierge, and the best part? It was crazy as it sounded, and it was pretty much as epic as it sounded too. All StudentHack attendees were allowed to tweet: “@StudentHack #concierge” followed by any question or request, and the StudentHack staff would attend to you in a maximum of five minutes. I’ll give you a few examples.

I sent the following, got up to get a Kitkat, came back and there was a bottle of water on my table. The whiteboard came a few minutes later.

Here’s a few more examples.

A reply within five minutes! Boom!

And the hilarious thing is, all of these requests (including @Spoffeh’s nerf gun target) were provided. If a certain type of chocolate requested wasn’t available, one of the staff would run to a closeby small supermarket and buy it for them.

The generosity of StudentHack was a completely different story. Especially the food. Without exaggeration:

  • The first batch of pizza consisted of EIGHTY pizza boxes. I remember a second batch later came in, but I don’t know if those were part of the 80 or even extra pizza.
  • The lunch they provided has at least 300 sandwiches. Yes. THREE HUNDRED.
  • The amount of chocolates were not even possible to have in one place. It’s like they had a factory in the venue that we couldn’t see. Every time the Kitkats finished, they’d be replaced by three boxes of M&M’s. And if you still wanted Kitkats, they gave you a whole box.
  • Same goes for sweets: Bilawal was walking around giving people cups of Skittles, filled to the brim!

The most incredible part of the whole event is the supporting and friendly atmosphere. There was no competition amongst the attendees. In fact, many of them would walk around the tables, just to stretch our legs and/or make new friends. If they saw a problem someone else was having that they could solve (e.g. I’ve never done JavaScript), they’d sit with you and advise you and teach you. They’d even take the keyboard and solve it for you. It became clear to me that StudentHack has its own unique culture, compared to StartupWeekend or any other similar event, in which teams must compete for the prize. That’s the beautiful thing about StudentHak: No one really cared about the prize.

My team was called MusicalPackets, and we developed an app that runs on a local web browser that converts live traffic data into music. It was a brilliant idea (thank you Mustafa) and, out of approximately thirty teams, we were one of the ten that made it to the finals.

Coding the weekend away. From left to right: Callum Spawforth, Mustafa Al-Bassam & me

One of the teams who didn’t make it to the finalist phase congratulated my team for making the finals, and I asked if they did and they said no. Naturally (and stupidly), I asked if they were leaving. Their response was this:

“Why would we? I mean, yeah we’re probably not getting a prize, but that’s not why anyone’s here for, right?”

That’s when I understood. StudentHack isn’t about winning. I’m not saying their prizes aren’t amazing, MusicalPackets ended up being the only team that won two prizes:

  • Best Use of MongoHQ: $100 MongoHQ credit, £20 pounds Amazon voucher, Mongo T-shirt
  • Best Fresher Hack: £100 Amazon Voucher

(By the way, the gifts above were for each person in the team, not for the whole team.)

But the point is, it’s about meeting new people, learning new things and gaining new skills. It’s about having the kind of spirit you’re supposed to see in sports, where it’s not about being better than others, but it’s helping others be as good as you are.

StudentHack is exactly what every hackathon should be like.

You can see our finalist presentation here.

Check out StudentHack’s Facebook page for all of the pictures, and follow them on Twitter!

Originally published at blog.faresalaboud.me.